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Not So Grand Illusions

The Shaping of the Arabs: A Study in Ethnic Identity

by Joel Carmichael
Macmillan, 407 pp., $7.95

The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958

by Patrick Seale
Oxford, 366 pp., $7.20

The Arab Cold War, 1958-1967: A Study of Ideology in Politics (Second Edition)

by Malcolm Kerr
Oxford, 169 pp., $1.70

For quite some time now, the Arabs have been making a considerable noise in the world. Chanceries, academics, and newspapers are alike preoccupied with Arab grievances, demands, and aspirations. From small beginnings thirty or forty years ago, the Arab question has become an industry similar to that of electronics or space technology. But they have also become a bore. Fifty or a hundred years ago an author who felt drawn to Middle Eastern subjects had a tremendous variety from which to chose: Barbary corsairs, belly dancers, fanatical Mussulmans, sultans, pashas, moors, muezzins, harems. Now, in a decidedly poorer exchange, it has to be the Arabs.

By Arabs of course we do not mean the lively and interesting denizens of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, or Baghdad. We mean rather the collective entity which writers of books manufacture and in which they manage to smother the charm and variety of this ancient and sophisticated society. This collective entity is a category of European romantic historiography, and judged by its results, it is not a felicitous invention; for as they are described by their inventors the Arabs are a decidedly pitiable and unattractive lot: they erupt from the Arabian desert; they topple two empires, while making grandiloquent speeches in their rich and sonorous language; but all too soon the rot sets in, materialism and greed erode their spirit, and their caliphs change from lean puritans into fat voluptuaries. After that, it is all up with them: they are engulfed and enslaved by the Turks, hoodwinked by the British, colonized by the French, humiliated by the Jews, until at last they rise up again to struggle valiantly against Imperialism and Zionism under the banner of Nationalism and Socialism.

The ultimate insult is that the victims of this European travesty have accepted this caricature as a true picture of themselves, and as nature is said to imitate art have, in the process, come in fact to behave like it.

As may be gathered from the title of his book, Mr. Carmichael recognizes this story for the European concoction that it is. He argues, in fact, that only now, because of the wide currency which modern methods of propaganda and indoctrination have ensured for this myth, has an Arab collective identity, shaped and sustained by it, begun to emerge. He writes (p. 309):

It was in fact the Western habit of referring to Arabic-speaking Muslims, at least in the Middle East outside of Egypt, as “Arabs” because of their language—on the analogy of German-speakers as Germans, French-speakers as French and so on—that imposed itself on an East that had never regarded language as a basic social classifier. It was natural for Europeans to use the word “Arab” about a Muslim or even a Christian whose native language was Arabic; they were quite indifferent to the principles of classification in the East. The oddity is simply that this European habit became the very germ that the contemporary Arab nationalist movement has sprung from.

Mr. Carmichael’s purpose in this book is to show matters in a truer perspective. He begins by discussing the Arabs, i.e., the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, at the time of their eruption onto the stage of world history in the seventh century of the Christian era. He gives us an idea of their social and economic organization, describes the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad, the character of his message, the foundation of the Muslim polity in Medina, and the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. These conquests meant the establishment of an Arab empire—an empire, that is, ruled by the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. But, as Mr. Carmichael argues, this Arab empire did not last for very long. With the conversion to Islam of the conquered populations, the Arab element speedily lost its dominance and became part of a new amalgam, the political institutions and the civilization of which we have come to identify as characteristically Islamic. In this new amalgam, from the start and until very recently, the dominant elements were the Persians and various kinds of Turks.

Toward the beginning of The Shaping of the Arabs Mr. Carmichael announces that his purpose is to “extricate” their history from that of “the far larger community of Islam.” The book is in fact a history of the Muslim world which draws on previous work in the field. The borrowing is somewhat uncritical, for we see the author drawing inspiration, on the one hand, from the works and theories of such eminent Orientalists as Brockelmann, Grunebaum, Lewis, and Gibb, and, on the other, from writers like Antonius and Toynbee.

The author is not very successful in extricating Arab from Muslim history, and we may speculate on the character and legitimacy of the enterprise itself. Mr. Carmichael frequently states that very soon after the appearance of Islam Arab history proper becomes indistinguishable and inextricable from Muslim history. To try to extricate it from this history is to adopt the very perspective, invented and propagated by Europeans, which the author rightly finds so unsatisfactory. We may go further and say that to search for Arab elements in Muslim history is to be influenced by contemporary preoccupations and interests; it is to fall into anachronism, to show us the past tailored to present requirements. Consider, therefore, a passage such as the following (p. 58):

In any case, the importance of Muhammad’s role can scarcely be overestimated. Though Islam began outwardly and inwardly as an Arab appendage, it soon overflowed the bounds of the people it had been born into and burst out of the Arabian Peninsula altogether. The paradox of Muhammad’s life was that though he formed the Arabs into a people, he did so through a modality that was essentially self-contradictory, by laying the foundations of a universal religion.

Such a passage is heavy with the assumptions of a secular, “sociological” culture, according to which religion is eminently an instrument or an appendage. It is safe to say that Muhammad and his contemporaries, and the successive generations of Muslims until almost yesterday, would have rejected utterly the notion of Islam as an appendage whether “outward” or “inward.” For them Islam was the central event of history which governed and colored the whole of their lives. If this is so, then the paradox of which Mr. Carmichael speaks becomes somewhat artificial. Muhammad did not intend to form the Arabs into a people, nor did he in fact do so. Out of Arabs he made Muslims, and it is as Muslims that they went out of Arabia to make their conquests and establish their empire. Only modern Europeans and their Middle Eastern imitators would look upon Muhammad as the founder of the Arab nation.

Thus it is Mr. Carmichael’s undertaking rather than Muhammad’s life which is paradoxical. He sees the radical failing of romantic European historiography, and yet exhibits, in many ways, the very same failing. When we come to the modern period, Mr. Carmichael also manages to present a romantic version of Arab history, no doubt because of the sources on which he seems to rely. Antonius, in his Arab Awakening, provided Arab nationalism with a mythical prehistory in the nineteenth century, and the mark of The Arab Awakening indeed lies heavy on Mr. Carmichael’s account of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Antonius, Mr. Carmichael greatly exaggerates the role of the Syrian Christians as the precursors of Arab nationalism, and again like Antonius he attributes to the American Presbyterian missionaries an imaginary role as the midwives of this nationalism. He says, for example, (p. 288) that “They took the view that if a nation is to be restored to an independent intellectual position, its primary tool must be its written language.” The fact is that they took no such view. The missionaries did for a time conduct classes in Arabic because they feared that were they to use English—which was in overwhelming demand—their catechumens would not long remain humble laborers in the vineyards of the Lord, but would begin to feel drawn to greener pastures.

Mr. Carmichael also helps to give further currency to the fiction long propagated by European publicists that “Abd al-Hamid’s regime, founded on corruption, espionage and oppression, was sadly unfit for a modern role.” There is much more to be said for the view that this Ottoman Sultan was in fact, during much of the thirty-two years of his long reign, a powerful modernizer, and that his modernizing activities—by fostering a large group of European-educated, and therefore disaffected, officers—brought about the downfall of his regime in 1908. Again, Mr. Carmichael’s account of the various wartime British commitments in the Middle East and of the Sharifian revolt is also unsatisfactory. He repeats the dubious but often-repeated contention that the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916—which he calls “notorious”—was irreconcilable with British promises to the Sharif of Mecca. In fact, far from being irreconcilable, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was designed to fit in with these promises. He also repeats the legend—first propagated by Colonel Lawrence—that Damascus was “taken” in October 1918 by Faysal and Lawrence; he says that from the point of view of the Arabs, this was the “first fruit of victory.” Indeed, to have got control of Damascus was a coup, but the city was not secured by Sharifian military prowess. Allenby forbade Damascus to the Australian and Indian troops who had borne the brunt of the fighting against the Ottomans, and allowed the Sharifians to enter it and to claim its capture.

Only after the First World War was Arab nationalism given its armor of doctrine, which was systematically spread through books, newspapers, and the schools. This happened principally in Iraq, where under British auspices, Arab nationalists in control of the administration and of the educational system set out systematically to propagate their views and to indoctrinate the rising generation with it. According to this doctrine, by virtue of speaking one language, etc., the Arabs formed one nation and were therefore entitled to form one state. Like other nationalist doctrines, this one suffers from a simple logical defect, for there is really no way of showing that people who speak one language have to unite into one state. Mr. Carmichael, however, seems to take the doctrine at its face value, for he says (p. 383): “What is artificial is not the concept of a unitary Arab state, which, regardless of the material obstacles to its realization, corresponds at any rate to a growing awareness of the Arabs of themselves as distinct from Europe, but the atomized states into which the Arabs are at present divided.” Two comments may be made: all states are artificial, and no state is natural; and however artificial the states calling themselves Arab may be, each has so far resisted all attempts to unite with another. These attempts at unity began in earnest in 1945 with the foundation of the Arab League under British auspices. From that day to this, the politics of Arab unity have consisted of one state seeking to gobble up another, and of the other states doing their best to stop this.

THE EMIR OF TRANSJORDAN wanted to rule the whole of the Levant. The Syrians, the Lebanese, the Egyptians, and the Saudis strenuously objected, and his ambitions came to naught. Iraq repeatedly tried to effect a union with Syria, and spent much money and effort on the project, but her rivals, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, proved more ingenious and succeeded in checkmating her. These events, which took place between 1945 and 1958, are the subject of Patrick Seale’s excellent study, The Struggle for Syria. During the Second World War the Syrians, with British help, shook off the French Mandate and became an independent republic. Their public men, like the public men of all the other Arab states, professed to believe in and to work for the ideal of Arab unity. Ostensibly to forward this unity they went to war in 1948 to prevent the partition of Palestine between the Zionist immigrants and its native inhabitants. It is doubtful whether they or their partners really desired this war, but Transjordan was bent on annexing as much as it could of Palestine, and Egypt could not passively watch such aggrandizement. With Transjordan and Egypt involved, the others could not remain uninvolved. The 1948 War was fought by the Arab states perhaps more to foil one another than to prevent the establishment of Israel. The war ended disastrously for Syria and for the others. Syria’s civilian rulers became discredited. The officers accused them of incompetence and corruption, and beginning in 1949 they mounted a series of coups d’état. Syria fell into the hands of the colonels. These colonels were from various factions and entertained various ideologies. Some—a few—were communists. Others were votaries of the PPS, a movement founded in the 1930s by a Lebanese who believed that a Syrian nation, not an Arab one, existed in the so-called Fertile Crescent, and that this Syrian nation had the right to form one state to include Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq.

The military followers of the PPS lost, not because their doctrine was more absurd than others, but because they proved less efficient than their rivals in parading their tanks and clobbering their enemies. These rivals happened to be devotees of the Ba’th—Anglice the Arab Resurrection Party. This Party was founded during the Second World War by two schoolteachers in Damascus who were fervent believers in Arab unity and who insisted that this unity would come about only when the Party mobilized all the masses and by catharsis drained all selfishness out of the Arabs, compelling them selflessly to love one another. The gospel of love did not make much headway among the sophisticated Syrians until some officers got taken with it. This coincided with a heightening of Iraqi-Egyptian rivalry in Syria; the Egyptian military regime, particularly after Suez, tremendously inflated its appeal as the foremost champion of Arab unity. The gospel of love became a hot gospel, and the Ba’thists believed that they had Colonel Nasser hooked. As it turned out it was he who had them hooked, but to this we shall come later. In February 1958 rivalries between the officers in Syria, combined with rivalries between Iraq and Egypt and between the USSR and the US, precipitated a union between Syria and Egypt. The United Arab Republic, as the new state was called, was described by a writer in the L’ondon Spectator as an episode in the New Arabian Nights.

Mr. Seale weaves his way skillfully and gracefully through the mazes of this black comedy. Occasionally, however, he betrays a touch of earnestness out of keeping with the character of his story. He says, for example, that the Syro-Egyptian union remains the most important event in postwar Arab history. This is grossly to exaggerate the significance of the episode—admittedly one somewhat more bizarre than is usual for Middle Eastern politics. He calls the founders of the Ba’th “the most astute and the most principled men in Syrian public life”: but their astuteness chiefly consists in their having indoctrinated a few officers who proceeded to carry out coups d’état—but who, by and by, turned on their mentors. As for their principles, they are perhaps more accurately called ideologies, and do we not know how unprincipled ideologues can be? What the leaders of the Ba’th did with their principles in the 1950s and Sixties would have done honor to a quick-change artist. Mr. Seale accurately describes the PPS as “ex-officers, desperadoes, fanatical young men, dedicated cadres, bound by the rigid hierarchies of the party and the mumbo-jumbo of Sa’ada’s ideas”: Does this not fit the Ba’th to perfection? He also compliments the Soviet Union on its reappraisal of Arab nationalism in 1954-6, and declares that it was “matched by no comparable intellectual and imaginative effort in the West”: it is by no means clear that the Soviet Union’s urge to replace Great Britain as the patron of Pan-Arabism has been more to her advantage than the earlier adventure was to Great Britain’s.

But where in all this are the Syrians? Mr. Seale does not tell us what they, the corpus vile in all these experiments, think of it all. But perhaps it does not matter, for they have never been much accustomed to being asked their opinion about their rulers. For them the happy man has always been he who has a beautiful wife, a comfortable house, a lucrative occupation, who does not know government, and whom government does not know; in short, the private man. Resurrectionists of course do not respect privacy, and it has become more and more difficult to maintain it. Its only protection, such as it is, has been the anarchy of these short-lived regimes.

MR. SEALE stops at 1958. In The Arab Cold War Professor Kerr takes the story up to 1967. It is a compact, cool, and astringent essay, exemplary in every way. This is a second, expanded edition of a work which first appeared in 1965, and which originally covered the period between 1958-1964. Professor Kerr’s title describes precisely the state of Arab politics not only in the years with which he is concerned but ever since the foundation of the Arab League. His last paragraph, added after the June War, is a sound description of the origins of this particular episode, but with a few changes it can be made to apply to the first Palestine War of 1948. Professor Kerr writes:

the Arabs paid for their quarrels by stumbling into war with Israel. The Egyptian ejection of the United Nations emergency force from Sinai, which triggered the explosion of June 5, clearly reflected the UAR’s quest for prestige in other Arab capitals—a quest that had become reckless in consequence of events described above, and particularly the November 1966 alliance which allowed the Syrian tail to wag the Egyptian dog. Once war began, other Arab governments lost control of their policies and were sucked in behind the UAR as hapless allies in a war to which their own rivalries had led them.

Egypt, or the United Arab Republic, as its rulers have insisted on calling it even after the secession of Syria in 1961, has been, ever since the Suez affair of 1956, the pacemaker of Arab nationalism. It has used the potent slogans of this doctrine to subvert unfriendly Arab states and to create for its leader in all Arab-speaking areas a strident and at times formidable following among the poverty-stricken, transistor-addicted masses. Yet when all is said and done, Egypt’s Arab policy—which King Faruq invented for his own aggrandizement and which the officers who overthrew him in 1952 took up with such enthusiasm—has brought the Egyptians nothing but misfortunes and, in the six-day war of 1967, catastrophe. The ordinary Egyptian, a man of common sense, whose wits have been sharpened by life under a despotism, is probably asking himself and his fellows whether these hardships are really necessary. And if we are optimists, we will hope that one day his skepticism will communicate itself to his rulers. Faruq, however, must be held innocent of the other feature of Egypt’s regime, its so-called “socialism.” This in reality is no more than an oppressive and deadening étatism draining the country of all enterprise and initiative. An Egyptian joke has it that an economist, asked about the prospects of the Egyptian economy, replied that they were average; questioned further, he explained that he meant it was worse than the year before and better than the year to come.

Nineteen-fifty-eight, then, saw the union between Egypt and Syria. But if Damascus thought to captivate its virile and masterful captor, it had, as they say, another think coming. Nasser was the boss and he had no desire to become the evangelist of the new dispensation and preach the glad tidings of the coming Resurrection. He was boss in Egypt and meant to be boss in Syria. The Ba’th leaders gave him up for an unregenerate old Adam, and retired to pray and plot for the new heaven and the new earth which were surely coming. It is only through tribulation, we know, that believers reach the millennium, and Syria in 1958-61 went through such tribulation. The Egyptians proved incompetent colonial rulers, and Syrian officers conspired against the union and ousted the Egyptian viceroy from Damascus in September 1961. The Ba’th leaders supported the secession, but themselves split the following year. One faction wanted to take part in the predominantly non-Ba’th government which succeeded the Egyptians, while the other faction, sea-green incorruptibles, spurned and execrated such human weakness and corruption. Their day came in March 1963 when yet another coup d’état justly and providentially put them in power. They at once proclaimed their desire for a new and purer Arab unity and actually went to Cairo to talk it over. But the two partners, now bruised and world-weary, could not hit it off any more. In February 1966 a new and even stricter Ba’thist sect arose with a new coup d’état, the ninth in seventeen years. The two original apostles of the Ba’th were denounced by the schismatics, but fortunately had to suffer nothing worse than flight to Beirut. The tenth, an abortive one, took place six months later. And so it goes on. As the nursery rhyme has it:

Tourne, tourne, joli moulin

It will go on turning for a long time now.


Perplexed January 18, 1968

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